Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The “Let’s Impersonate Eric Holder” Game

In the course of numerous arguments about the need for stricter voter ID laws, I’ve had a number people refer me to the story of the man who obtained Eric Holder’s primary ballot from a Washington D.C. polling station (google it if you aren’t already familiar with the story). The people that refer me to this story usually seem to feel that it is some sort of trump card – as in “There, we’ve proven that voter fraud could occur, therefore we need voter ID laws.”

This is the same sort of shallow thinking that led to the TSA and our ridiculous airport security procedures. The question isn’t “Can one person steal another person's ballot?”, it is “Can enough ballots be stolen to change the outcome of an election?” I’ve been thinking about this problem and come up with a little mental game people can play to run through the possible scenarios.

The Goal

The goal of  “Let’s Impersonate Eric Holder” is to fraudulently cast 1,000 or more additional votes for a congressional candidate. That’s 1,000 more votes than the candidate would have received had you not participated in the game. Note that I’m setting the bar extremely low here. Yes, the Franken/Coleman race was decided by less than a thousand votes, but that was a very rare case. The majority of congressional races are rarely closer than 2 or 3 percentage points. Given that the average size of a congressional district is 700,000 people and assuming a voter turnout of around 40% – you’d need 2,800 votes to effect a single percentage point of change in a congressional race.

Starting Pieces

You start with you get:
  1. A list of all the registered voters in a district including their names, addresses, and party affiliation (if any). This will sometimes be referred to as “the target list”; the people on this list will sometimes be referred to as “targets”.
  2. A list of all the polling places in the district broken down by streets and/or neighborhoods.


The following is a list of some common sense constraints on the activities in the game:
  1. You can walk into any polling station and vote as anyone on the list provided that person lives in the neighborhood(s) serviced by that polling station and provided that the likely sex of that person’s name matches your apparent sex. For example, someone who looks male cannot vote as a person named “Kathy” though he could vote as a someone named “Kelsey”.*
  2. The assignment of neighborhoods to polling stations is NOT one-to-one. That is, a single polling place may service several neighborhoods.
  3. Attempting to vote more than once at the same polling station may result in detection and apprehension (see rule 6). The chance of detection is modified by a number of personal factors. If you are 6’4” with prominent moles etc. (like myself), it is likely that attempting to vote even twice at the same polling station will result in detection. If you are of medium height, medium build, non-descript features, etc. you may be able to vote several times at the same polling station.
  4. Attempting to vote as a person who has already voted may result in detection and apprehension (see rule 6).
  5. Although the list contains the party affiliation of the voters, it does not contain any information about their voting intentions. You can assume that voters intend to vote for their party’s candidate, but you cannot make any assumption about who people registered as “independent” intend to vote for.
  6. Voting fraud is a felony offense with mandatory jail time. If caught, it is likely that you will be charged, tried, convicted, fined, and jailed.
  7. Conspiracy to commit voting fraud is a felony offense with mandatory jail time. If caught, it is likely that you and your co-conspirators (at least those who don’t testify against you) will be charged, tried, convicted, fined, and jailed.
* For the sake of brevity we will not consider cases that involve personal knowledge of the target by a polling worker. For example, attempting to vote as the polling workers next door neighbor.


One of the most readily apparent aspects of this game is that it is impossible for a single player to vote 1,000 times in the same day. On top of this, one can assume that the target list is split approximately 50/50 between women and men. To have a chance of reaching the goal, the player must recruit a number of co-conspirators – some men and some women. Leaving aside the difficulty of recruiting people to participate in a (free – unless you are going to pay them) felonious activity, one has to recognize that the risk of detection increases (at the very least) linearly with the number of co-conspirators. If you don’t want to run afoul of rule 7, you must keep the size of your conspiracy down to the absolute minimum necessary to reach your goal.

The Multiplier

The key to this game is what I call “the multiplier”. The multiplier is the number of times the player and his co-conspirators can vote as someone else without getting caught. For example, if the multiplier is 20, you will need 50 people (1 player and 49 co-conspirators) to reach the goal of 1,000 extra votes (sort of – we’ll get into this later). At the end of the game, each conspirator will have their own multiplier, but we can expect that they will tend to clump around some average value. A larger multiplier means fewer co-conspirators and a smaller chance of getting caught; a smaller multiplier means more co-conspirators and a greater chance of getting caught.

There are a number of factors that influence the multiplier. One of these is the “lumpiness” of the polling stations – how many neighborhoods per polling station? A related factor is the physical distance between polling stations. Because of rule 3, the ideal situation for the player is fine-grained polling stations (ideally one per neighborhood) that are fairly close to one another. The anti-ideal is coarse-grained polling stations (many neighborhoods in one station) and/or polling stations that are distant from each other.

Another factor affecting the multiplier is time. Assuming it takes a minimum of 10 minutes to get the ballot and vote, and assuming the polling stations are open for 12 hours, it is obvious that the maximum theoretical multiplier is 72. Obviously, by rule 3, you can’t vote 72 times at the same polling place, so you must take into consideration the travel time between various polling stations. Also you have to consider the possible presence of lines and/or other delays at the polling stations. Keep in mind that any attempts to mitigate the effects of rule 3 by changing clothes and/or disguises also cuts into the multiplier by consuming time.

Timing Is Everything

Rule 4 has some interesting, time-related effects on the course of play. When the player shows up at their first polling place promptly at 7:00 am (as you would assume they would if they were attempting to maximize their multiplier), we can be reasonably sure that their target has not voted yet. When the (by now weary) player shows up at the last polling place at 6:59 pm, they can can be sure that, if their target voted today, they will have voted already. In between these two extremes, the chance of running afoul of rule 4 increases throughout the day.

There are two ways to address this issue. The first is to stop voting earlier in the day, perhaps at noon, or 2 pm. This, obviously, decreases your multiplier and requires you to recruit more co-conspirators if you want to reach the goal. The second is to develop an act that will get you out of the polling place when confronted with the inevitable “Mr. Smith, it shows here that you already voted” – something that convinces people that you are a genuine, disenfranchised voter, but at the same time keeps you out of the clutches of any over-helpful poll workers that may inadvertently expose you. Note that, once you “burn” a polling place by hitting rule 4, it is probably unwise to go back there again. This, in turn, reduces your multiplier.

Another time-related factor is the changing of workers at the polling stations. If you can get information on when and how these changes occur (not one of your starting pieces, sorry), you can use this information to mitigate the effects of rule 3 (though not rule 4).

Overlapping Votes

Suppose that your goal was to cast 1,000 extra votes for a certain Democratic candidate, “Mr. Johnson”. By rule 5, stealing the vote of a target who was going to vote for Mr. Johnson doesn’t count – you basically just did their voting for them. As a player you need to maximize your chances of stealing the vote of someone who wasn’t going to vote for Mr. Johnson. Obviously this means that you should target Republican voters – but it isn’t that simple. The key to maximizing your multiplier is to spread the target list evenly across you and your co-conspirators in a way that prevents you from running afoul of rule 3. Depending upon the make up of the neighborhoods etc. there may not be enough Republican voters to target at some polling stations. Given that independents run around 30-40% of registered voters, it is more than likely that you are going to have to steal votes from the independents who’s intentions, by rule 5, are not guessable. At the end of the day, what this means is that you are going to have to steal extra votes to compensate for overlapping votes. If your overlap rate is 20%, this means that you are going to have to steal 1,200 votes to accomplish your goal. This, in turn, requires you to either increase you multiplier and/or recruit more co-conspirators.

End of Game

So is it possible to play this game, reach the goal of 1,000 extra votes, and not get caught? I don’t think so. Given all the factors that I’ve discussed, I can’t imagine an average multiplier any greater than 10. With a modest overlap rate of 10%, this means you would have to recruit (and possibly pay) 109 other people to participate in a felonious conspiracy to change the outcome of a congressional election by less than a single percentage point. Good luck with that.


Clemans said...

I think you did a good job helping people to see how hard it really is to change the outcome in the way some are frightened of. It is much easier to rig the electronic machines. They can show how someone voted, but cast the vote for anybody that the program tells it too. But few people, and never heard a conservative care, seem to be bothered about the real possibility for fraud.

julierl said...

Hi Gilbert, thank you for this exercise!

Gilbert Pilz said...

One thing I didn't cover is the likely aftermath of someone winning this game. Imagine what would happen if approximately a thousand people in the same congressional district were to discover that they had, mysteriously, already voted?